Union Minister for Food and Consumer Affairs Ram Vilas Paswan talks about his suggestion on restaurant menus, claims there is a “cold war” between Nitish and Lalu, says Mayawati doesn’t represent all Dalits, and insists talks can happen with Kashmiri separatists only after they disown terrorists.
Why Ram Vilas Paswan?
Since parting ways with the Congress, right before the 2014 polls, Ram Vilas Paswan has emerged as an important Dalit face in the NDA government. The nine-time MP from Bihar was recently in the news for urging restaurants to specify food portions on their menus. Last week, he also slammed Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray for speaking out against the government. Thackeray had accused Paswan of forcibly getting a sentence — that NDA will fight 2019 elections under the leadership of PM Modi — added in an NDA resolution.
RAM VILAS PASWAN: When I took charge of the ministry, the Food Security Act had already come into force (July 5, 2013) but was implemented in only 11 states. Today, the Act is in force in all 29 states. 67 per cent of the country’s population or 81 crore people are getting rice at Rs 3 per kilo and wheat at Rs 2 per kilo. The Centre bears the subsidy cost, but the state governments claim that they are paying for it. They don’t pay a single penny.
We want to make use of modern technology to make transactions cashless. Of the 23 crore ration card holders in the country, 19 crore have been linked to Aadhaar. The benefit of this process is that 14 crore ration cards were found to be fake. If it (Aadhaar) is integrated in more states, a lot of money can be saved.
On the issue of food portions, we have not told restaurants how much to serve and how much to charge the customer. What we have said is that the consumer should know what they are getting for the price they are paying. If I am paying Rs 700 for a bowl of soup, I should know what quantity of it is being served. (Last month the minister had suggested that restaurants specify on their menus the amount of food they serve per portion.)
ANAND MISHRA: Some of your old socialist friends are now forming a mahagathbandhan with the Congress to name a common Opposition candidate for the presidential polls. They are also trying to put up a united Opposition front for the 2019 elections.
These people (opposition parties) are wasting time. Look, it is the Opposition’s job to propose their candidate. It is not surprising at all. But I see no coordination and understanding between the opposition parties. In Uttar Pradesh, Mulayam Singh Yadav and his son Akhilesh Yadav are not on the same page. Mulayam says there will be no tie-up with the Congress, and Akhilesh is talking about an understanding with them. Then there is the Left, Mamata Banerjee (TMC), Congress and Arvind Kejriwal (AAP). The Opposition is fragmented and divided. For the first time, there is no Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha. The Opposition can come together and nominate their candidate for the presidential polls, but nothing will come of it.
ANAND MISHRA: In the past, socialist leaders and splinter groups of the Janata Dal came together with the Left to form an Opposition front against the ruling Congress. They are coming together now as well.
At the time when the opposition parties came together against the Congress, there was no one with the Congress. But now, when the BJP-led NDA is in power, there are many parties that have joined hands with the BJP. Like in the Janata Party government, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was foreign minister. In 1967 in Bihar, when the Janata Party formed the government, the BJP was with us and so was the Left. But today, the situation has changed.
See, the biggest thing is credibility. During that period, the Opposition had never been in power. So people thought that when the Opposition comes to power, there would be new vision and direction. But today members of the Opposition have already had opportunities to run governments, and people have seen them. So what is the point of forming the mahagathbandhan?
COOMI KAPOOR: The Supreme Court recently ordered that Lalu Prasad will stand trial in all fodder scam cases. Do you think it will affect the Nitish Kumar government in Bihar?
There are two things here — ‘mass perception’ and ‘actual impact’. The mass perception has been formed. First it was the Mohammad Shahabuddin episode, when he was granted bail. Then he was sent to Tihar. Now, an audio tape has emerged where a criminal like Shahabuddin is heard instructing Lalu Prasad, who is himself a convict, regarding a superintendent of police. The (Bihar) government is responsible for this and they must now clarify.
Then there is the controversy over land deals involving his sons Tej Pratap and Tejashwi. And now we have the Supreme Court judgment asking Lalu to face trial in all fodder scam cases.
There is an ongoing cold war between Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar. Nitish Kumar claims to be the face of “sushasan (good governance)”, but so far he has remained silent over these issues.
Many people claim that the (state) government is behind this, and some are even pointing to the role of RJD leaders who have been upset with Lalu Prasad. Nitish Kumar wants Lalu Prasad’s party to remain weak and surrounded by controversies. The RJD has more seats in the Bihar Assembly than the JD(U). The RJD has 80 seats (the JD-U has 71). One has the crown and the other has the power.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: You have been a minister in both UPA and NDA governments. What’s the difference in their working styles?
There was lack of decision-making in the UPA government. This could have been because it was a coalition government. Taking decisions was tough in the UPA government, there was no clear path. The government remained confused.
The BJP-led NDA government has a majority in the Lok Sabha. Narendra Modi is currently the tallest leader in the BJP as well as in the country. He gets praise for the government’s work and faces all of the criticism. Even if a decision is risky, the present dispensation takes a call.
Take demonetisation for instance. The UPA government could have never taken a decision on the matter, but this government took the risk and was ready to face the consequences.
The other difference is the lack of corruption. It’s been three years and there is no corruption taint on this government. During the previous government, there were corruption charges every month.
This government has only one centre of power. In the previous government, there were two centres.
ANAND MISHRA: There are reports that ties between the BJP and Shiv Sena are strained.
What can the Shiv Sena do? In Maharashtra, except for Mumbai, the BJP has won all the civic body elections. Even in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) elections, there was a very small difference between the two parties. The Sena thinks that if it does not oppose the BJP in Maharashtra, it will lose ground. During the recent NDA meeting, we told them not to raise issues with the BJP in public.
For example, it was unanimously decided at an NDA meeting that Narendra Modi will be our PM candidate in 2019. However, the Sena later claimed otherwise. All allies were of the view that Narendra Modi is the tallest leader in the country and that’s why we took the decision.
VANDITA MISHRA: Do you agree with the BJP’s decision to appoint Yogi Adityanath as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh?
This issue concerns the BJP. The party got a massive mandate and it has a system in place to make such choices. Who are we to say anything on their choice for the CM’s post.
ANAND MISHRA: Whenever there is an issue between Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad, it is speculated that Nitish will return to the NDA fold. Is that a possibility?
Nitish Kumar has a ‘double card’. He is apprehensive of Lalu Prasad taking over the reins of the government. The RJD has 80 seats and the Congress has 27, which gives them a total of 107 seats.
Nitish fears that in case their alliance breaks, Lalu will manage to get support from some of the JD(U) MLAs. That is why he keeps sending signals to the RJD that ‘if you withdraw support I have another way to get the numbers’.
Nitish needs to make up his mind on whether he wants to stay in the Mahagathbandhan, resign and seek mid-term polls, or if he wants to join the NDA.
So, first he needs to take a clear stand and only then will the NDA decide on whether to support or oppose his inclusion in the alliance.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: Recently, the PM backed generic drugs. You have held the Chemicals and Fertilisers portfolio. What are your views on it?
I have been pitching for generic drugs since 2007. I also support printing of names of drugs in regional languages. Names of drugs are mostly printed in English and sometimes in Hindi too. I had told M Karunanidhi, when he was the Tamil Nadu chief minister, to push for printing of names of medicines in Tamil.
SANDIP DAS: Aadhaar seeding in the Public Distribution System (PDS) has been slow in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. How do you want to pursue it?
They are yet to give us names of at least 10-15 lakh beneficiaries. The state government picks all the stocks and yet we get several complaints of the poor not getting grains. When we seed Aadhaar numbers with ration cards, it will stop people from picking up ration from multiple locations under one name. It will stop pilferage.
The Central government stores food grains at FCI godowns. From there the state government picks up the stock. We tried to computerise the entire process and asked state governments to pay 50 per cent of the expenses. But the entire process has yet not been fully computerised.
ANAND MISHRA: You were part of the all-party delegation to Kashmir in both the UPA and NDA governments. You have also met separatist leaders from the Valley in past. At the moment, the BJP is in favour of a ‘muscular policy’ to handle the issue. What, in your opinion, is the way forward?
We had met separatist leaders such as Yasin Malik and Syed Ali Shah Geelani. But the situation is completely different now. I don’t think that these leaders are influential anymore. In fact they are now using the language of terrorists to keep themselves relevant. The first issue is that certain people give youths stones to throw at security forces, and in response, the forces open fire. On both sides our people die, and those responsible remain safe.
The other issue is of terror activities. There is no dispute between political parties and other sections of the society on the fact that such activities are supported by Pakistan. We have asked the government to adopt a tit-for-tat policy and give complete freedom to the Army.
ANAND MISHRA: Can you elaborate on the tit-for-tat policy.
We only want an equally strong reaction to Pakistan’s actions.
HARISH DAMODARAN: What are your views on the Supreme Court’s order to arrest Justice C S Karnan.
It is a justice verses justice matter. I won’t comment on the issue.
HARISH DAMODARAN: Do you support reservation in the higher judiciary?
We want an Indian judicial service on the lines of the Indian Administrative Service and Indian Police Service. In such a system the judges will be selected through competition, putting all questions about the collegium system to rest. No one can doubt the efficiency of IAS and IPS officers because they are selected through a competition. Similarly, no one will raise questions on judges if they are selected through a competition.
I fully support the idea of an Indian judicial service, conducting Lok Sabha and Assembly elections together, State funding of political parties, and keeping a record of foreign funding (to NGOs).
SRIJANA MITRA DAS: With Mayawati losing Dalit votes and the BJP reaching out to the community, don’t you think Dalit identity politics is being marginalised? Also, what are your views on the politics around beef?
Mayawati falsely claims to be a Dalit leader. Dalits stand for Scheduled Castes. There are many castes among the Dalits — Paswans, Pasis, Jatavs etc. She was the leader of only one Dalit caste, but claimed to represent the entire community. She only inherited the legacy of Kanshi Ram. Has she participated in any Dalit welfare movement? Where was she during the Mandal Commission movement?
She just believes in vote-bank politics. First she suffered a massive defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and now in the Assembly polls. She will have to form an alliance even to secure her seat in the Rajya Sabha next year.
Because of social awakening across the country, one single leader does not represent an entire community anymore. No Brahmin represents the entire community, no Rajput represents the entire community. Likewise, no leader can claim to represent all Dalits. In Bihar, Ram Vilas Paswan has the support of Dalits, but he can’t make similar claims in Uttar Pradesh. Similarly, Lalu Prasad is the leader of Yadavs in Bihar, but he has no say in Uttar Pradesh; Mulayam Singh Yadav is zero in Bihar. The BSP can’t win a single seat outside Uttar Pradesh.
SRIJANA MITRA DAS: And what about beef politics? People are being killed because of it.
Beef, triple talaq, Article 370 and Ram Janmabhoomi are issues raised by political parties, but it can’t be part of the government’s policy. Have you ever heard anything from PM on Article 370 (that grants special autonomous status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir)?
VANDITA MISHRA: But BJP-ruled states are bringing in stricter laws against cow slaughter.
When they bring in any such law, you can ask for my views. Recently, in Uttar Pradesh, there was a controversy surrounding closure of slaughterhouses. We looked into that issue. Those were illegal slaughterhouses.
ANAND MISHRA: Should the government talk to separatists in Kashmir?
The mass perception is against any talks with the separatists when our soldiers are being killed. The mass perception is also that terror activities should stop and separatists must cut all ties with terrorists.
As soon as separatists disown terrorists, we will initiate talks with them.
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